I had the chance to talk to Hillary Lindsey last week. Hillary has had cuts for Martina McBride, Gary Allan, Taylor Swift, Little Big Town, Sara Evans, and won a Grammy for “Jesus, Take The Wheel”, one of her sixteen cuts for Carrie Underwood. We talked songwriting, growing up, and the art of the cowrite.
You are from Georgia, right?
I’m from Washington, Georgia, two hours east of Atlanta. My father was a drummer (and he still is), and my grandfather played every instrument under the moon, and sang as well. Growing up around the house, we sang constantly. My dad will leave me voicemails with random lyrics from songs I haven’t even heard. It’s how my family just says hello.
Did that plant the seeds of songwriting at all?
I think so — my mom loved music as well. We always had music on in the house. I don’t ever remember not singing. I just listened to a tape of me and my grandfather from when I was four years old — I just listened to it while I was home for Christmas and I am sitting on his lap and we are singing “Animal Fair“. I’m four years old singing “the money, he got drunk”. I named my first publishing company Animal Fair Music after that.
What did you grow up listening to?
In Washington, we didn’t have a record store, so you had to go to Athens or Augusta to get anything. We listened to a lot of James Taylor, a lot of Motown, the occasional Merle Haggard. I was a radio junkie, listening to all the cheesy 80s pop music and Madonna. I had a boyfriend who would skip school to go to Turtles’ in Athens. He introduced me to stuff I would have never heard on the radio: Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Tori Amos.
How did that musical upbringing transition into songwriting?
My girlfriend and I would always make up songs — just being silly. My grandfather passed away, and he had an old piano he left me. I never took lessons — I am still just good enough to write a song. My best friend found out that her parents were getting a divorce, and it just rocked us all. I have no idea why, but I sat down at the piano and wrote my first song about that.
Did that first song make you realize it was something you could do?
It made me realize it was something that I really loved. I just wanted to keep doing it. Once I wrote that first one, I didn’t stop. The piano room was right beside my mom and dad’s bedroom, and it drove them nuts. I would write songs about stuff that my friends were going through, then it became all about boys. Some of those are embarrassing. I just never stopped.
When did you leave Washington, and where did you go?
I graduated and went to Belmont University. I was still writing songs, majoring in music business. I knew that I didn’t want to get screwed and wanted to learn the lingo of contracts. At night I would go home and write and record on my tape recorder. Same stuff — boys — it’s still about boys.
Did you know that songwriting was a viable career when you went to Nashville?
No, not at all. I was doing it as an artist originally — I thought that’s what everybody did. Belmont is just a block away from the row, and all those publishing companies were right there.
Is there a song that stands out as the first song that you thought was great?
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” killed me when I was young. I used to sing it a lot. In Washington, I was probably the only other person that was musical. We had a karaoke machine, and I would go sing everywhere — pageants.
A great Allen Shamblin song.
And Mike Reid — three or four years ago, I played with him at Joe’s Pub and he let me sing it. I about lost it.
How did you transition from Belmont to the publishing business?
I would go play this place called Jack’s Guitar Bar. My roommate would force me and my guitar into the car and drive me over there. It was pretty incredible talent — Patty Griffin, Keith Urban, all sorts of great folks were playing there at the time. I was getting my chops up a bit, but so nervous. I didn’t want to sing after Patty Griffin, of course. I hadn’t gotten the nerve to take any meetings. My roommate had an internship at a record label. She came home one time and told me she had taken one of my tapes to work. I was so mad, but she said they loved it. Randomly enough, that tape got passed around to some publishers. Pat Finch from Famous Music took me to lunch and signed me.
What does writing look like for you on a daily basis? Do you primarily cowrite?
I do cowrite. Growing up, I didn’t know there was such a thing. After I got my first deal, I got introduced to it and I hated it. I was uncomfortable, but now it is so hard to write by myself because I love it.
What does it take to be a great cowriter? It seems like it takes a special discipline.
I think you just have to be free. A lot of the times you write with the same people, so you get comfortable, but you have to be able to say the stupidest thing, because that often leads to the most brilliant line.
Do you approach different cowrites differently?
Yes — one guy might be a great guitar player, so you make him take it that way, or you might be a great lyricist so you drill down on that.
Who are your best cowrites? Who brings out the best in you?
I have my guys — Troy Verges, Gordie Sampson, Brett James, Luke Laird. I always have said that if I got married, they would be my bridesmaids. We came up together and we still write so often together. But then I write with new writers like Ryan Tyndell (who wrote Eric Church’s “Springsteen”) and Ross Copperman — it is so fun to write with new blood. It’s like a first date — you get nervous, but it is so exciting when it goes well.
How does it work writing for specific artists? How does that influence the song?
It’s kind of different every day. Sometimes your publisher will call and say “so-and-so” is going into the studio in a few weeks, and you get a goal like that. Then some days, it just comes from my own life and I have no idea its going to be for. That’s how I started — writing songs for me, not looking at the pitch sheet. It is a business, the goal is to get a cut. So you have to be focused, but not so much that you cut out the soul of a song.
If you hear that an artist is looking for a cut, how do you get into their mindset? Or is it more of a stylistic thing?
It’s both of those things. Like I thought of Sara Evans, and the thing that popped into my head was “Born to Fly”. I think of her flavor, the tone she puts on songs. Some people might think that its really cookie-cutter, but to me, its still me sitting back on my bedroom floor in college. Even when you are being very intentional about it, I’m still a songwriter, I still have that deep need to write.
Tell me a bit about “A Little Bit Stronger” with Hillary Scott and Luke Laird.
We wrote that for Hillary and Lady Antebellum. She had just been through a bad breakup and was just talking it all out. She just said something — I think she might have said “some days I feel a little bit stronger” and we were like “whoaaaaa!”. They actually recorded it, a full on demo (hear it here). Somehow Sara heard it, and loved it, and Hillary sang on the record with her. You can’t plan it, but it paired up with Sara’s story at the time.
By my count, you have had 16 cuts with Carrie Underwood. How did that come about?
When she won American Idol, they held a writers camp and she would go from room to room and check out people. She had a lot of songs of mine on hold. I don’t know how it happened, but she just gravitated towards the way I write. I’ve been very grateful that she continues to want to write. We did a writing camp at the Ryman — pretty crazy. We would have dinner on the stage when the whole thing was over. Writing camps are pretty strenuous, when all you want to do is write THE song. Some days she would sit in with people, some days she would just let us go. I don’t even know if any of the songs from that camp made the record.
You’ve had a lot of cuts for women. Is that just a factor of the songs you write?
I think the melodies and content of the songs lend themselves to women. I have had guy cuts, just not a lot of them. Gary Allan’s latest is my first guy single, and it just hit #5 today.
Tell me about that song, “Every Storm Runs Out Of Rain“.
Matt Warren is good friends with him and just called me up. We wrote five or six songs over a span of a few months. Matt had that title, and was singing it really soulfully, like a gospel choir or something. About a month later, we were making coffee and I just started playing around the title, and we just wrote it really fast.
Tell me about Carrie Underwood’s “Do You Think About Me“.
I love that song! I wrote it with Cary Barlowe and Shane Stevens in Key West, at the Key West annual songwriters festival. That year was the first year that we all went together, and stayed at a house. We were sitting by the pool, and Cary started playing that lick. I flipped my guitar over and started playing the beat. I don’t even really remember how it all came together, but it all came so fast. The three of us sound so good together — it instantly sounded good. We thought with the three way harmony, that Lady Antebellum would cut it, but they passed. I don’t even know who pitched it to Carrie, but she loved it and cut it. We finished writing it and jumped in the pool.
How long ago was that?
It was several years before it was cut. It’s weird like that — I mean, look at “The House That Built Me“. That song sat on the shelf for seven years.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Speaking of that song, Tom Douglas is amazing. He is a dear friend, and I am just blown away by his wisdom and brilliance. He is a sweet, warm guy, and an amazing songwriter. “Little Rock”, by Collin Raye, I love that. There are so many writers in this town that are amazing, but Tom Douglas stands out to me right now.
Tell me about the Music City Hitmakers tour with Brett James and Gordie Sampson.
It was Brett’s cousin Charles’ idea. I had never sung with a symphony before. I sing “So Small” with just piano and the symphony, and the first night I sang it, I almost lost it, forgetting the words and everything. Putting the songs in that setting changes everything. I remember going to see James Taylor and the Nashville symphony in college. Great songs are great songs, but with the orchestra behind it, they take on a whole new meaning.
See Hillary sing “Jesus, Take The Wheel” here.